Why Detroit Pistons are entering this season with high hopes just one year into rebuild

Detroit Free Press

Building a contending NBA franchise is rarely, if ever, a linear process. It can take years for young draft picks to learn how to play at a consistent level, and they may not figure it out. It can take decades to draft a bona fide superstar.

Surrounding that superstar with championship-caliber talent takes trial and error, good fortune and an owner willing to open their pocket book. And even if everything lines up, you still have to win 16 playoff games against teams with similar aspirations.

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The Detroit Pistons, who are entering Year 2 of their “restoring,” are aware of how hard it is to win. But with Troy Weaver leading the charge, they’ve gotten many of the initial steps right.

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They won the 2021 lottery and drafted Cade Cunningham, a prospect that many pundits believe can become a franchise player. Two of last year’s three first round picks, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, earned All-Rookie honors and were named to the USA Select Team. The third first-round pick, Killian Hayes, has shown enough flashes in 26 games to inspire belief that he can be a good NBA point guard. Jerami Grant has already proven himself to be one of the best offseason signings in franchise history, garnering All-Star consideration last year midway through a breakout season. The rest of the roster is deep with young talent.

Even getting to this required a level of luck that the franchise just hasn’t had in the last decade-plus. The Pistons won 20 games last season, but they often looked better than their record. Their net rating was closer to mediocre than bad, they had their share of close games they didn’t have the talent and experience to close out, and they saw strong performances from their rookies on a weekly basis.

Next season’s success won’t be measured purely by their record, but they do want to see tangible progress. They’re in the in-between space of not carrying playoff expectations, but expecting to inch closer to the postseason. At the end of last season, Weaver said 20 wins won’t cut it. That’s still his belief, and the goal now is for the team to prove that it can take a meaningful step forward.

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“The scoreboard won’t determine that necessarily right now,” Weaver said. “Just on a global view, we had 20 wins. That’s not going to cut it anywhere whether you’re rebooting, rebuilding, or in our case, restoring, we want to win more games than we lose. The bigger goals are in front of us. We measure our success in how we’re moving the ball forward. At the end of the day, our ultimate goal is to win games.”

The Pistons took steps to improve their record over the offseason. Cunningham should raise the floor for this group — maybe not on Day 1, but eventually. They added two free agents, Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles, who should help them shoot the ball better, which was a weakness last season. Another year of experience will certainly help last year’s rookies, as well as the older young players such as Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson.

Dwane Casey said their continuity will also help. Outside of Olynyk and Lyles, their other additions to the main roster this offseason were all through the draft. Like last year, Casey will be tasked with teaching a young team how to win, even as losses potentially pile up.

“We’re a year ahead in the process as far as bringing the second-year guys back like Saddiq, like Isaiah, bringing those guys back,” Casey said. “The continuity, the consistency they bring back, gives us another step, like we were talking about, taking another step forward. I think that’s huge to bring the same core group back. We have some special young talent, in that we’re going to have our ups and downs, we’re going to have adversity. But at the same time we want people to have to make a decision when they come to the LCA to play.”

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But Casey and players couldn’t help but express optimism as well, even as they acknowledged the reality that they could take steps back in some areas before they see progress. Casey mentioned the San Francisco Giants, who have surprisingly emerged as a MLB contender despite entering the 2021 season with low expectations.

The Pistons have a tough path to contention, with the Eastern Conference improving and boasting multiple teams who are eyeing the Finals. The Giants may not be a realistic goal, but it’s something the Pistons can and will use as inspiration.

“I hope and pray we emulate that, but it can be done,” Casey said. “I say why not us? Everybody is counting us out, got us at the bottom, which is great, fine. I function better being the underdog and hopefully our guys put a chip on their shoulder. So there’s no reason to put limits on how high we can go, but I’m being realistic in understanding it’s going to be tough and difficult. But it still can be done, and why not us.

“We had a lot of close games last year,” Casey continued. “The only thing guys didn’t do last year is quit playing. They played hard each and every night. Bring that to the table with some more experience, added talent, added 3-point shooting, and we should take a full step forward.”

Cunningham mentioned the Detroit Tigers, who have a winning record at Comerica Park and are exceeding expectations after a poor start to the season. Like Casey, he acknowledged that winning in the NBA is hard, and they have a lot to prove.

But the Pistons aren’t counting themselves out. They’re entering Year 2 of the restoring with low external expectations and high internal hopes. It worked out pretty well for them last year. Now, they have to figure out how to build on it. 

“The Tigers were low in projections, but now they’re one of the top teams,” Cunningham said. “We’re a really young team. The NBA is filled with great talent, great teams. There’s not lot of high expectations on us right now but we’re going to come in to be consistent, to play hard, to play to win and make the right play. I feel like if we do that every day, at the end of the day it’s just basketball and whoever does that more is going to win the game, so if we can stack up those days and surprise people, then that’s what it’s going to be.

“That’s what we’re shooting for every day in practice, and I feel we’ve had a good month leading up to training camp to start that,” he added. “Really just a good offseason with everybody. I’m really excited to see where we go with it.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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